The History of Leith

December 15, 2004

Call the history brigade

A FIRE engine zooms past the window on its way to the latest 999 call in the Capital. The loud wail of its siren is as instantly recognisable as the familiar red vehicle itself as it speeds towards the scene of the fire.

It is easy to take for granted today that a quick phone call will summon trained firefighters with a raft of equipment within minutes to save lives, homes and businesses from going up in flames.

But witnessing the engine from inside the Lothian and Borders’ brigade’s Museum of Fire provides a clear reminder of just how much firefighting has changed in the city.

The Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade is the oldest municipal fire service in the world. And the museum in Lauriston Place brings to life the brigade’s history from its humble beginnings in 1824.

It also highlights the public’s lasting fascination with fire. The number of people who have visited the museum since August this year is more than double the total visitor numbers for the whole of the previous year – rocketing from 738 between August 2003 and August 2004, to around 1620 from August 2004 to today.

Station officer Colin McIvor says: “There has been a big rise in visitor numbers. We do a lot of work with schoolchildren and encourage them to come, but actually only about 40 of the 1620 people we have had since August were schoolchildren. A lot of the visitors were tourists who were here during the Festival and saw the museum while they were on open-top bus tours.”

The changes in the fire service were vividly illustrated recently when fire ripped through the Cowgate in December 2002.

The destruction wreaked by the blaze gripped the world and rekindled long-lost memories of the Great Fire of 1824.

Both fires were fuelled by the labyrinthine Old Town streets, with flames spreading swiftly through the maze of alleys and buildings, underground vaults and backrooms.

Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade sent 17 engines to the scene of the 2002 fire, where up to 120 firefighters – including crews from Fife – armed with electrical hammers, power saws and sledge hammers – battled flames 70ft high. Some 13 buildings were destroyed and, although no-one was killed, nearly 150 people were evacuated from their homes and pubs and clubs in the area.

It was a tough challenge, but the brigade had a wealth of experience to draw on.

It was a very different story in 1824. The pioneering service was still being set up when what became the worst fire to hit Edinburgh started in the High Street one November evening.

The novice, untrained firemen – recruited from the city’s tradesmen – were ill-prepared to deal with the blaze.

They had next to no experience of fighting fires and the basic firefighting equipment of the time – including horse-drawn wagons and leather hoses – was badly damaged following a spate of other fires earlier in the year.

As hundreds of people fled their homes, soldiers and sailors joined the new firefighters, but chaos soon descended, with no-one sure who was in charge.

In those days it was common practice to borrow horses from taxi firms to pull the wagons, while locals were encouraged to man the hand-operated water pumps with the offer of free beer – so that firefighters could get on with the more skilled task of rescuing people from burning buildings.

Thirteen people, including two firemen, died as the fire raged for four days, threatening to wipe out the whole of the Old Town and bringing the famous Tron Bell crashing to earth, half-melted, as the Kirk was engulfed in the flames.

It was a harsh lesson which showed just how badly the city needed the new brigade.

Today, a reconstruction of the Great Fire is one of the museum’s most popular exhibits.

McIvor says: “People are fascinated by it, especially children. You can see just how easy it was for fire to spread in those days, and how little equipment in comparison to now, firefighters were equipped with.

‘THE Cowgate showed that some of the old dangers still exist, though. I was talking to one of the firefighters who was there and they were saying that the most scary thing was that they could hear the roar of the fire and feel the heat but they could not see anything [until they were able to cut through into the hidden passageway] and then it was like a blowtorch.”

Artefacts at the museum include carts once pulled by men, and later horses, as well as the steam-powered engines which later replaced them. The first motorised engine is also there – brought into service by Leith Fire Brigade in 1911 while Edinburgh still laboured under steam. There is also what is known as the pneumonia wagon.

Honorary curator Ian McMurtrie, 79, who clocked up around 40 years in the service, knows from bitter experience how the open-top fire engine got its moniker.

He explains: “It was first used in the 1930s. Firefighters’ tunics sometimes got so cold they froze to the seats. Quite a few of them were ill.

“They were still using them when I joined [in 1949]. I remember how cold it got. You were better off sitting at the front if you got the chance, where you were shielded from the wind and rain.”

The first official fire stations in Edinburgh were built at the tops of hills around the city so gravity could help men and horses reach the disaster scene faster.

However, it was a risky policy as the first wagons did not have brakes. It was not unknown for firefighters to be crushed to death as wagons careered out of control down The Mound, their colleagues at the back of the cart unable to slow them down.

The first motorised engine cut response times, but it was hardly fast by modern standards – top speed was about 20mph.

The structure of the city has made it prone to fires, thanks to the practice of building what were essentially early high-rises so that people could live within the protection of the city walls.

Before the creation of the brigade, fires in Edinburgh were put out by insurance firms. Customers who paid for insurance with a particular firm were given a placard known as a firemark, with the company’s name on it to display outside their homes.

In the event of a fire the company’s own firemen would come to put it out. However, company firemen would only attend fires at their own customers’ homes, leaving uninsured residents to fend for themselves.

It took a spate of horrific fires before the city fathers decided to set up a municipal service. It was headed by one James Braidwood, the dynamic 24-year-old son of a wealthy city cabinet maker.

A trained surveyor, Braidwood had long been concerned about the fire hazards posed by the Capital’s housing.

While he is credited with creating the foundation of today’s service, his invention of a jump sheet proved less popular.

The jump sheet was a circular piece of canvas the size of a small trampoline with a dozen handholds around the edge.

The idea was that firemen would hold the sheet below the window of a burning building to catch someone leaping from the flames above.

The brigade used to demonstrate the apparatus to the public to help educate them on fire safety, with one crew member dressing as a woman to emphasise that it was designed to help weaker people.

Even Braidwood realised its limitations, commenting that if victims hesitated and fell instead of jumping “the chance is that they may alight on their head; and in that there is a danger of injuring the neck”.

The last-resort device was soon abandoned, and McMurtrie believes it was never used for real in the city.

Edinburgh schoolboy David Graham, nine, and grandfather David Norcliffe, 54, are impressed when they are shown around the museum. The nine-year-old says: “I have been learning about fire safety and the fire brigade at school. I like all of it.”

The museum has no set opening hours, and, like many visitors, the pair have just turned up hoping to get a tour.

The brigade also takes phone bookings, but with demand rising, changes are planned – funding permitting – to extend the museum, including opening it on a regular basis so that more people can see the fascinating past of the city’s fire service.

For more information about the museum, call 0131-228 2401

Julia Horton

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